Divers are searching for more bodies from a migrant boat that caught fire and capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 111 people. A further 200 are still missing.
The Italian government has declared Friday an official day of mourning, with a minute’s silence held in schools.
The sinking, in which at least three children died, has renewed focus on the plight of African migrants making the perilous Meditteranean crossing to Europe, prompting an outcry in Italy and calls for urgent action by the international community
Many more bodies are expected to be recovered following by far the most devastating of what President Giorgio Napolitano called a “succession of true slaughters of innocents” to occur off Italy’s coast.
A coastguard official said rescue workers had recovered 111 bodies from the 20m (66ft) boat, which sank about half a mile from shore, and were expected to recover at least a further 100. A total of 155 survivors were rescued. The boat was carrying up to 500 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis
“Two motorboats remained in the area overnight and this morning divers resumed work but we expect to recover more than a hundred bodies from the ship,” a coastguard official, Floriana Segreto, told Reuters.
Thousands of migrants have died making the journey to Europe’s southern borders over the last 20 years, often in dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. Human rights campaigners said that the tragedy could easily have been prevented.
“A terrible human tragedy is taking place at the gates of Europe. And not for the first time,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe‘s parliamentary assembly. “We must end this now. I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind, and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame.”
As the Sicilian island’s quayside was lined with corpses, hopes for more survivors dimmed. When coastguard divers began an inspection of the area around the wreck, they found 20 more bodies underwater. Asked on Italian radio what help was needed, Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, replied: “Coffins. Coffins and hearses.”
Giusi Nicolini, the island’s mayor, said: “It’s horrific, like a cemetery. They are still bringing them out.”
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the tragedy should be a spur to action. In Italy, Napolitano and government ministers said the time had come for the world to shoulder its share of the burden in the growing problem of migrant boat arrivals.
Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister, said: “We hope the EU realises that this is not an Italian but a European disaster.” He headed to Lampedusa vowing to “make Italy’s voice heard loudly” with José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission.
Napolitano said there was now an “absolute necessity for decisions and actions by the international community and primarily the EU”. The integration minister, Cécile Kyenge, told journalists: “It is not the moment to point the blame at anyone, but we will ask countries to each do their bit.”
Their message was echoed by Pope Francis, who said: “Let’s unite our efforts so that tragedies like this don’t happen again. Only a decisive collaboration of everyone can help and prevent them.” In impromptu remarks, he added: “The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace.”
The alarm over the unfolding disaster was raised shortly after 6am on Thursday by fishing boats who noticed a vessel in trouble off the Lampedusa coast near Isola dei Conigli (Rabbits’ Island). Lampedusa, where the interior ministry says more than 8,000 migrants landed in the first eight and a half months of this year – out of a national total of more than 17,000 – is just 70 miles from the Tunisian coast.
Alfano said the boat’s motor was believed to have stopped working, causing water to come into the vessel and prompting the passengers to burn a sheet to try to attract rescuers. “Once the fire started, there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down,” he said. The passengers were just half a mile from the shore.
A young Tunisian man was arrested by Italian police on suspicion of being one of the people smugglers responsible for organising the crossing. Unnamed survivors quoted in the Italian media, who said the boat had left the Libyan port of Misrata two days earlier, said that three fishing boats in the area had seen that their vessel was in trouble but had not come to their rescue. Alfano rejected this, saying that the boats nearby had not seen them. “If they had, they would have intervened,” he said. “Italians have big hearts.”
Codacons, an Italian consumer group, said it would ask prosecutors to look into the allegations, which it said, if true, would represent a very serious failure.
The controversy echoed a similar tragedy in March 2011, revealed in the Guardian, in which dozens of African migrants en route to Lampedusa died after being apparently ignored by European military units.
Human rights groups have long been calling on Italian and European authorities to rethink their approach to the crossings, which brought about 15,000 migrants to Italy and Malta last year, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees.
Judith Sunderland, senior western Europe researcher of Human Rights Watch, said “the lack of solidarity from the rest of the EU” had caused an “almost utter failure of any proposals for greater burden-sharing”. Member states needed to do more to help Italy shoulder the burden, she said, calling also for a “presumption of rescue” policy to be implemented to ensure that any overcrowded migrant boat spotted by passing ships would have to be offered help.
Andrea Iacomini, spokesman for Unicef in Italy, urged Enrico Letta, the prime minister, to go to Europe and demand more co-ordination and help. He urged the interior ministers of all Mediterranean nations to hold an immediate conference focused on how to prevent tragedy from happening again.
“We need to go to Europe and say that there is a humanitarian emergency in Italy. What are we doing about it? … We cannot have the victims on our consciences only afterwards,” Iacomini said, claiming the Mediterranean had “become a cemetery. And it will become even more so.”